This post was far and away the most read thing I published this past year. It is a rumination on a business I’ve worked in and loved for decades – sports. It’s a lot longer than my typical screed and several prominent folks were kind enough to link to it and encourage people to read it. I guess they did since this had roughly triple the readership of the next most read post. Written last July 12, it asks the question “Is The End Near For Sports?” I hope not!
I know you might be thinking that my headline is just some outrageous form of click bait and that I can’t seriously think that big-time professional sports are heading down the same path as traditional big media. Let me throw a few recent articles at you and maybe you’ll come to a different conclusion (which I do hope you’ll post in the comments).
The sports business is based on a few large revenue streams. One is income from the games themselves: ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, etc. What makes many of those things possible is a nice facility – an arena or stadium. We’ve seen franchises move (and piss off their fans) over the stadium issue, sometimes even before the bonds on the last stadium built for the team are paid off. I urge you to watch the John Oliver piece on the relationship between teams and towns but here is why I suddenly think there is an issue. As reported by Mondaq:
A bill has been introduced that would eliminate the availability of federal tax-exempt bonds for stadium financing… The bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to treat bonds used to finance a “professional sports stadium” as automatically meeting the “private security or payment” test, thus rendering any such bonds taxable irrespective of the source of payment.
In other words, it will make public spending on a private facility way more difficult. That will lead to fewer new facilities and a much harder path to growing that revenue stream. Strike 1.
Then there is the largest revenue stream for most big leagues: TV. Kagen recently reported that the U.S.pay-TV industry will lose 10.8 million subscribers through 2021, according to their latest forecast. You might already know that ESPN has been losing subscribers – May 2017 estimates were 3.3% lower than the year before. For every million subs lost, ESPN takes in roughly $7.75 million less PER MONTH – or $93 million a year, and they have already lost multiple millions of subscribers. Yes, some are being replaced via the sale of OTT services, but that requires spending to sign customers, something ESPN hasn’t had to do before. The same subscriber loss issue is true of every other sports network albeit to a lesser degree since their monthly fees are less than ESPN’s. Smaller subscriber fees mean a diminished ability to pay those large rights fees. Sure, other channels (some would say suckers) will step up – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. But my guess is that the outrageous increases many entities have secured over the last few rights cycles are gone for good. Strike 2.
Finally, costs are not going to go down, at least not without major disruptions such as the two recent NHL lockouts. Players aren’t going to make less (the downside of the salary cap), team personnel probably won’t, at least not without a lot of turnover, and many of the other costs are either already low (minimum wages) or difficult to cut (food costs in the concessions, etc.). In an effort to mitigate some of the lower revenue and growing costs, some of the entities involved in sports are beginning to do what the airlines have done and make what was once part of the deal (in-flight meals, free bag check) part of an a la carte menu to grow revenue. Specifically, look, for example, at what NBC has done with their Premier League package. They are doing away in part with their NBC Sports Live streaming coverage in favor of a new premium streaming service called “Premier League Pass” that will be in addition to the matches that are already broadcast on live TV. The stand-alone streaming service will cost $50 in addition to whatever you’re paying for your cable subscription. That will bring in more dough but it will also anger fans. Strike 3?
Don’t misunderstand me. I think interest in sports generally has never been higher, and I think any sports entity that doesn’t rely on a big TV contract and employs athletes as independent contractors (I’m looking at you, LPGA) will be in good shape. I just think there is a major disruption coming in the next few years as we’ve seen in the TV and music businesses. Watch out as the next cycle of TV deals begins and if this bill is passed. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, don’t you think?